Terry Branstad can't save Iowa from Donald Trump's trade war

For a window onto magical thinking by top Iowa Republicans, you can’t beat Politico reporter Natasha Korecki’s dispatch from the GOP’s state convention earlier this month.

President Donald Trump’s trade policies have already cost Iowa pork producers an estimated $560 million. Soybean prices recently hit a nine-year low, and tariffs from China could cost soybean growers $624 million. Manufacturers of farm equipment like John Deere, Vermeer, or Kinze face a double whammy: Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum raise the cost of their products, while a shrinking export market for U.S. growers and lower farm incomes will likely reduce demand for tractors, sprayers, and planters. Imagine the outrage we’d hear from Iowa GOP leaders if a Democratic president caused such carnage in the agricultural sector.

Yet more than a thousand convention delegates stood and cheered when state party chair Jeff Kaufmann asked them to show their support for Trump. U.S. Representative Steve King reassured the crowd about the president’s “brinksmanship” on trade (“Give him time. Give him room”). The five Republicans seeking the nomination for secretary of agriculture tactfully avoided the subject of tariffs in their speeches.

The eventual nominee, Mike Naig, put a positive spin on trade developments in an interview with Politico.

Naig said a personal visit days earlier by the administration’s chief agricultural negotiator, Gregg Doud, underscored the administration’s willingness to lend a sympathetic ear to Iowans.

“I spent the day with him, he traveled, he met with Iowans, he met with Iowa businesses,” Naig said. “I know Mr. Doud heard me loud and clear and understood the urgency these people feel.”

Who believes that what Doud heard from Iowa farmers and business owners will carry any weight with this administration? Trump is “obsessed with the trade deficit.” The White House director of trade and industrial policy is “a hardline protectionist.” Last week Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross defended the tariffs before a skeptical group of U.S. senators.

Kaufmann bragged to Politico that a member of our state’s Congressional delegation has a “personal contact” with the president every week; “He has gone out of his way to let Iowa know that he hasn’t forgotten about us.” Who cares about phone calls or White House meetings? Iowa farmers are losing hundreds of millions of dollars, and if Trump had his way, they’d be even worse off. Last year, the president proposed “new restrictions on government-subsidized crop insurance” and a “20 percent cut in the USDA’s discretionary spending,” affecting “agricultural research, food aid for the poor, and programs that benefit small rural communities.” (Click here for the gory details.) The president’s draft budget for the coming fiscal year included similar cuts.

David Kochel, one of Iowa’s most prominent #NeverTrump Republicans, suggested to Korecki that U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad may be able to reduce the economic harm.

“Iowa has never really had a stronger or more consistent advocate than Terry Branstad,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist. “He’s an advocate for trade, he’s an advocate for agriculture, he has a relationship with Premier Xi going back many years. He gets Iowa specifically. He has lots of experience as governor of Iowa, and he understands industries that cross state lines. He takes into consideration what the administration is working to do ultimately to get the Chinese to behave a little better on intellectual property, but he does understand not just Iowa, but the economics that are at stake here.”

Branstad got to know Chinese President Xi Jinping in a different political context, when his goals were largely aligned with those of the Chinese authorities. He’s not leading a farm state’s trade missions anymore. His supposed “friendship” didn’t deter Xi from imposing soybean tariffs that would hurt Iowa more than any other state.

Nor is Branstad in a position to influence the president. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue isn’t even pretending Trump might change course. In a June 25 guest column for USA Today, Perdue echoed the party line about Trump “standing up to China.” But fear not, the secretary promised: the president “will not allow our agricultural producers to suffer because of China’s continued bad actions.” Perdue alluded to “tools at our disposal to support farmers faced with losses [….] we have not unveiled our strategy, as it is not good practice to open our playbook while the opposing team is watching.”

So, the president on record supporting big cuts to farm programs has a super-secret plan to shield producers from retaliatory tariffs? I’m not buying it, and neither are the Iowans in Congress. All six of them signed an open letter yesterday pleading with Trump to “quickly resolve our trade differences and avoid a trade war. […] Farmers are facing tight margins and low commodity prices, which makes the latest tariffs catastrophic for Iowa’s economy.”

Many people talked up Branstad’s qualifications for his current job. But despite connections with Chinese leaders going back 35 years, the U.S. ambassador is a spectator to the trade debacle, just like the rest of us.

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  • The super-dooper secret-weecret farmer-saving strategy...

    …belongs right next to the Nutrient Reduction Strategy on the Magical Thinking Shelf.